Razorback - The Monster That Ate Monster Movies

I thought I'd try to write up each of the film in my best of the 80s list. I've already done John Carpenter's masterpiece, The Thing, so I'm moving onto Russell Mulcahy's Razorback. This is adapted and updated from an earlier piece I wrote about the film, which coincided with the release of Bait, a film Mulcahy wrote and produced. 

The story of Razorback, is far less important than the way it's told. With the help of a grizzled hunter named Jake Cullen, an american named Carl Winters scours a piece of Australian desert to avenge the death of his pregnant wife Beth after she's killed by a giant warthog. It's clear from the first seconds of Razorback that this is a superior film - something wilder, more angular and stylish than nearly anyone in the genre game was attempting at the time of its release. Interrupting the first few credits is the image and sound of a windmill working at impossible intensity. The image is a familiar one - no one would be shocked to learn of Mulcahy's pedigree shooting music videos. Indeed he sort of coined the form when he shot the piece for "Video Killed The Radio Star" by the Buggles. The windmill's sound is huge; deliberately overpowering. Then we see the outback, we know that's where we are because of the kangaroo in the foreground - we're less sure about the red skies that corrupt the rest of the frame. Not even The Road Warrior himself rode under skies this gorgeously oppressive. Then we pan behind the figure of Bill Kerr's soon-to-be-disgruntled hunter, Jake Cullen. The orange sky and the motion of the camera strongly suggest Apocalypse Now - the synth score does too. Moments later Kerr puts his grandson to bed and starts hearing the sounds. Grunting, squealing, but the music tells us there's menace in these otherwise innocuous sounds. He steps outside and the thing that drew his attention, the boar, breaks through his paremeter fence then tusks the man's leg, destroys his house and carries off his baby grandson into the night. The boar is obviously an effect, footage of a proper animal shot in perspective mixed with an unmoving prop shuttled through the set on wheels. This is deliberate. When they gave Steven Spielberg a shark that didn't work, he hid it. When they gave the same thing to Mulcahy, the young punk made its fakeness an asset, sending it hurtling through his set at top speeds. It's not real, clearly, but that doesn't stop it from destroying a house and eating a baby. The lighting and sound design sell it even as we're more than aware that it shouldn't work. Kerr's reaction helps in no small part. When he discovers his lost charge, he wanders into the yard and falls to his knees screaming in agony to the heavens when the titles eat the rest of the frame. Whatever else is true of the film, I can bet that you've never seen anything quite like this. This is the monster movie to end all monster movies and unsurprisingly the genre didn't recover from its rampage for many years.

The editing is relentless, somewhere between Eisenstein, Dawn of the Dead's apartment seige and Richard Lester. The compositions and camera movements reference seemingly every monster/horror film that had come before it, not to mention most major australian productions; Mulcahy's entre into the world of big budget filmmaking was by all means a hopeless assignment, so he takes down the likes of The Race For the Yankee Zephyr, Mad Max, Gallipoli Wake In Fright, Patrick, The Last Wave, The Survivor, Walkabout, Stone and Long Weekend while he was at it. It's an upstart move, saying in essence "You loved all this shit, so, I'm sorry, but you're just going to have to endure this movie." He also anticipated The Coca-Cola Kid, but I'd believe that was a coincidence if anyone told me otherwise. If the powers that be wanted him to play in the mud like Brian Trenchard-Smith and Rod Hardy, then he was going to outdo everyone in the game. All the visual cues you recognize from those movies? That's Mulcahy saying "Yes, everything you've ever been told about this bloody country is 100% true. Animals roam freely in our houses, homeless natives hang out nearby, we drink constantly, murder those we don't care for, hunt kangaroos, tell off-color jokes, drive Road Warrior trucks and those who can't afford them ride camels." As if that weren't enough, he was also going to take the various styles shown off in Next of Kin, Patrick and Picnic at Hanging Rock and outdo them all! No shot would be wasted, no lighting set-up half-assed, no sound cue unaltered. He was going to out-stylize Richard Franklin, Peter Weir, Colin Eggleston and George Miller in one go. 

And at the risk of deifying a man who has yet to live up to the promise of his debut, I say he more than achieves this feat. He may never have put all his energy to good use again but then how could anyone hope to recreate the success of a film like this? It shouldn't work (and as evinced by Highlander, it wouldn't under any other circumstances), as he appears to try literally every flourish and trick that he was ever taught, but it absolutely does. Frankly any gimmicky approach you tried but a straight-forward one could only elevate the material (is there a sillier premise for a horror film, even in Australia where no premise was too outlandish, than a giant pig eating people?) so when Mulcahy decides that every single object would have a big-ass stadium light illuminating it, that every single scene would contain something completely unreal and/or nightmarish, that every single character would be a stereotype that he was deconstructing as rapidly as he was building, he was making a judgment call - love or hate the film but you would never forget it once you saw it. Just look at his version of New York that we glimpse for seven seconds; it's the same city that Jonathan Demme would capture in Something Wild two years later: Outsized and silly. Who in their right mind would choose to show a black man with a ghetto blaster on a street corner rife with old-fashioned taxis instead of just the goddamn Empire state building? It's the most recognizable landmark in the world and it certainly would have been in keeping with his purposely-tourist's eye view of the outback - kangaroos, aborigines, drinking. But he was after caricature. And though much of the film is stereotypical in microcosm, he frames and presents them so that you aren't ever sure what you've just seen. "Was that a guy with a ghetto blaster? Was that a car hanging from a baobab tree?" His goal is to both toe the line of Australia as a hellhole as propagated by most accounts of the place in pop culture (not to mention shoe-horning wombats, pigs, camels and other animals into as many shots as possible) and then make it seem far, far worse. This film was his ticket out of the outback and he's never gone back (except, hilariously enough, to remake the nearly perfect, but geographically/culturally inaccurate On The Beach for TV with Armand Assante taking over for Gregory Peck). He's also never made a film as good.

Mulcahy is exclusively the reason the movie works as well as it does. Obviously the edit helps him greatly, but without his compositions, his bug-eyed imagery and the way he handles the creature, the film would simply not work. Despite being, like Ted Kotcheff before him, an expat, scriptwriter Everett De Roche was the Outback's answer to Dardano Sacchetti and had written a handful of the country's most beloved grindhouse films; there was almost nothing he didn't try at some point. Watching Mark Hartley's fantastic documentary Not Quite Hollywood! you could get the impression that unless Peter Weir was in town, De Roche was in some way responsible for any given Aussie horror film. That's not true, but I will say it's a damn good thing he got directors as game and skilled as Richard Franklin and Mulcahy because his insane ideas would have destroyed less capable and fearless hands. I'm not even sure that George Miller, no slouch, but with no distinct visual style from film to film, would have survived a De Roche genre exercise. In the B-picture game Franklin was Mulcahy's only serious stylistic competition until he made Psycho II and discovered his wacky sense of humour which put him in closer proximity to Philippe Mora and Trenchard-Smith. Watch Link sometime to see why he never quite made it to the big leagues. But between the breathtaking highs of Patrick and Road Games you can see a fantastic talent stealing bits of Hitchcock to craft taught, unnerving thrillers from laughable De Roche premises. Arch Nicholson, Mulcahy's second unit director, comes a close second with Fortress and Dark Age proving almost as grim and stunning as Razorback. Nicholson died shortly after completing Dark Age so we'll never know if he would prove capable of sustaining his vision. In that time and in the studio system everyone seemed to be clamouring to be part of, chances are slim. Mulcahy sure couldn't. But for one film he was king of the fucking world. Even if no one knew it. 

Understandably what producers seized on was Mulcahy's ability to capture mood and so a stream of truly horrible action films like the first two Highlander movies, The Shadow, Silent Trigger, Blue Ice, Ricochet, The Real McCoy, The Scorpion King: Rise of a Warrior and Resident Evil: Extinction, a film which utilized  none of his strengths, were in his future whenever he wasn't collecting money directing music videos and TV. Rarely has a director with such a thorough understanding of cinematic convention, not to mention technique, squandered his gifts quite so splendidly. Not until Greg Mclean would Australia see a talent as cunning and ferocious arrive sui generis to reinvent the possible in the midst of an over-saturated generic landscape whose well had run completely dry. Mclean's Wolf Creek had just as much as style and beauty as Razorback, despite being twice as bleak. His follow-up, Rogue, is the Eaten Alive to Wolf Creek's Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but it still gives me far more hope for Mclean's future than if he'd made Highlander. Rogue and Wolf Creek are just as knowing as Razorback and between them capture the earlier film's sensibility, but even Mclean doesn't have the Godardian sense of deconstruction and anarchy that Mulcahy favored. Razorback is a film completely alone in its use of popular style and convention; a horror film about horror films. The images and individual sequences are first-rate, unmatchable. The film's centrepiece is also its high-point: Carl's trek through the desert. The attack on petpak during the finale has been compared in the past to Alien, and I'd add Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Blood and Black Lace and Blade Runner to that and it certainly is both thrilling and mesmerizing. But the desert trek is Mulcahy painting with his camera. Every new tableau Carl wanders into is distinct from the last, some looking like the hyberborian wastes of Conan the Barbarian (by way of John Milius or Frank Frazetta), others like Salvador Dali. In one he wanders under a blaring red sun and just to his right is a crack in the earth that looks like the edge of a film strip. The peculiar fuzziness these shots acquire in VHS format makes them seem even stranger, like they were spliced in by accident. Their progression only makes them even more post-modern and strange: Winters passes a dead horse arranged like a scarecrow then walks for most of a day, then suddenly he's back at the horse. As he crafts shoes out of scraps of his clothing, the horse breaks out of the ground to attack him. When he runs away, it's back where we first saw it, except now its nodding and laughing at him like a jack-in-the-box. The film's best scare and one of its most indelible images is clear evidence that Razorback is about the genre as much as anything. After waking from his walkabout in Sarah Cameron's guest bed, he sees her sitting on the edge of the bed. He gingerly lifts one hand to tap her shoulder and when she turns around, her face is replaced with that of an angry looking pig, squealing maniacally. We've all seen this scare before. How many times did Freddie Kruger or some other bogeyman or demon hide behind something ordinary. This is Razorback's version of the bathroom mirror scare or of Jason Voorhees/Carrie White's dream sequence coups de grâce. Again, it shouldn't work: is anyone frightened on paper of a warthog? Well first of all it's some kind of grotesque halloween mask, exaggerated and covered in hair. Second of all, it's so sudden that it could have been anything and worked. Then you have a moment where you realize you were frightened by a pig. This is his game. He will get you afraid or repulsed by his monster if its the last thing he does. Killing Beth Winters the way he does is pretty genius. Suddenly there's the whole fucking thing staring at her just outside her car window. Then it yanks the door off and begins eating her feet. Like the rest of the film, it'd be preposterous if it weren't so horrifying. 

Now the plot mechanics, I suppose, can only be attributed to De Roche and the source novel he drew from (which...doesn't this sound like great literature?). But I'm going to give credit to Mulcahy for playing up the dynamics he does so well. Thanks to Jake Cullen's stoic single-minded pursuit of the beast, and Carl Winters' pregnant wife backstory, Razorback is both a pastiche/homage to Jaws, the film that started the mother nature's revenge film cycle once more and made it personal rather than epidemic, The White Buffalo, the most peculiar of Dino De Laurentiis' Moby Dick/Jaws riffs, and Orca, the Dino's Jaws rip-off that gave its antagonist not just a backstory but human emotions as well. Now the pig in Razorback's only real breaks from reality are its existence, its laying low between attacks and its only ever killing plot-specific characters; No Alex Kintner is sacrificed to this monster. He's not greedy. He just wants to set forth the chain of events that will lead to his demise. Fatalistic in a way that not even de Laurentiis' tragic orca whale managed. He doesn't have emotions and Mulcahy frames him like a phantom, almost like Michael Myers. The moments where we glimpse him in profile on the horizon are fucking priceless. His existence is never less than galling, but it's never played for laughs. If any other actor but Bill Kerr dropped to his knees and screamed to the heavens (three separate times, no fucking less), as action heroes always seem to, it wouldn't work, but Mulcahy knows that it will. Every convention is in play and delivered with a straight face - you accept it in literally every other situation, so why not a giant warthog? After all far more care went into this monster than anything in Frogs or Day of the Animals. This is fourth wall breaking of the highest order; so good that its seamless. And the pace makes it impossible to stop and ask questions. Everyone on screen buys it and so, too, do you by the end.

2 comments:

lucasmangum said...

It's been so long since I've seen this. I reckon it's time to fix that.

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